Gordon Hayward, Free Agency, and the NBA’s Middle Class

As the world waits on LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, private planes, Vegas meetings, overpriced meals, and mystery pickup games, a few of the league’s non-glamour teams are engaging in real and interesting transactions!

The headliner is Gordon Hayward, to whom the Hornets (I did it! I didn’t write Bobcats!) tendered a maximum offer sheet that will come in around the four-year, $63 million mark once the league finalizes next season’s cap level. The fourth year is a player option, and the offer sheet carries a trade kicker — a little prick of inconvenience aimed at Utah, which must match the exact terms in order to retain Hayward. The Jazz will have up to 72 hours to do that once business can officially resume July 10, and if they take the full time frame, the Hornets will have almost all of their cap space tied up as players begin signing new deals.

Charlotte risks losing out on other targets, but most of the best ones are restricted free agents anyway, and Lance Stephenson’s people know that the Hornets could whip out a trump-card offer if they miss out on Hayward.

The Jazz have indicated they will match any offer sheet for Hayward, and if they do, it will mark something of a lost bet for them. Utah and Hayward could not agree on an extension before last Halloween’s deadline, with ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reporting that the Jazz’s offer topped out around four years and $48 million — and that Utah wasn’t willing to go above $50 million. It’s unclear exactly what Hayward’s crew demanded, but Stein and others reported it was something short of the max. That means the Jazz might cough up an extra $15 million over the life of Hayward’s deal.

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Scan the last half-decade’s worth of early extensions for guys coming off their rookie contracts, and the trend line suggests that an extension has been a better bet for the incumbent team than allowing the player to reach free agency. That will be the case here.

A bunch of extensions that appeared like gambles to varying degrees morphed into very nice contracts as the players refined their NBA games — Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, et al. Stephen Curry’s four-year, $44 million extension is one of the league’s best bang-for-the-buck contracts, but it’s something of an outlier, given Curry signed it at a time of great uncertainty surrounding his ankle issues.

There are some stinker extensions, to be sure. Andrea Bargnani’s turned into an albatross, and the jury is still out on Derrick Favors’s four-year, $48 million extension after his disappointing 2013-14 season. But Favors would have gotten that, and perhaps even more, on the restricted free-agency market. The league is flush with so much cap space that good free agents are bound to get overpaid. Larry Sanders’s four-year, $44 million extension looks bad today, but he’s three months of springy defense and good citizenship from turning right back into a nice value play.

Hayward regressed last season, puking up brick after brick and tossing away heaps of turnovers, and he’s somehow played himself into the largest possible contract any non-Utah team can offer him. The rule isn’t universal, but Utah will have to think about the trend line as Alec Burks (John Houseman voice, please) and Enes Kanter come up for extensions this summer and fall.

Look, this is an overpayment for Hayward, even with the cap set to rise by $4 million or so every season going forward. This is different than betting on Holiday to produce $11 million of on-court value. This is a deal that will average better than $15 million per season for a guy who shot 41 percent overall and barely cracked 30 percent from long range.

Playing as the top option on an awful team with terrible spacing deflated those shooting numbers, and Hayward would do better as a secondary wing guy filling gaps around Al Jefferson post-ups and Kemba Walker pick-and-rolls. But this contract will pay him like a top dog, not a secondary option.

He would be a fine secondary option in Charlotte. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type. His 3-point shooting will perk back up, he can run pick-and-rolls on both sides of the floor, he’s a skilled passer, and he should develop into a solid defender capable of guarding both wing positions. People will see this as a bet against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s upside, but it could just as easily be a bet against Gerald Henderson’s long-term place on the Hornets (2-for-2!). Kidd-Gilchrist is a defensive menace already, a project worth patience, and Hayward toggled between the wing positions in Utah; he can play alongside pretty much any other wing guy. He has the size to build a post-up game against smaller 2-guards.

And he has good floor vision, which would bode well for Hayward’s pick-and-roll game, which was spotty last season. Hayward turned the ball over on an ugly 22 percent of his pick-and-rolls last season, the 32nd-worst mark among 166 players who finished at least 50 such plays, per Synergy Sports. That is not good. But watch all those cough-ups and you see a young player stretched beyond his abilities, learning on the fly.

Hayward talked openly last season about how playing the alpha dog meant doing all sorts of things he had never done before — driving into heavy traffic, experimenting with pull-ups and floaters, and whipping passes all over the floor. He paid the price for that. He can get to the rim with either hand, but he often arrived there without a plan, shocked at the help defenders converging upon him. That led to a lot of confused and desperate jump passes that landed in enemy hands or flew out of bounds.

Traps high on the floor flustered him into picking up his dribble and flinging wild passes to nobody. When Hayward penetrated into that in-between floater zone — the area where Chris Paul murders you — he showed an understanding of where all the chess pieces were, and where they would move over the next couple of seconds. He gets it. He just didn’t get where all the defenders were, and how they were already primed to pounce on a skip pass, and he threw a lot of interceptions as a result.

But the brains and skills are there, and they’re developing. He’d fit well in Charlotte, and he could run second units when Jefferson and Walker rest — a big weak spot last season. This would be an overpay for Charlotte, though perhaps not a drastic one, and it could be capped-out next summer once Walker’s new contract hits the books. Committing huge money to a roster that tops out as “frisky second-round playoff team” isn’t ideal, but Charlotte is done playing the tank game, and it would still retain some flexibility after 2016 even if it commits big money to Hayward and Walker. Doing this would require it being careful on its next contracts for Jefferson, Henderson, and Kidd-Gilchrist. Stay tuned.

Charlotte’s play marks an interesting contrast to Orlando, which has used its cap space on Channing Frye and a preposterous contract for banished Hornet Ben Gordon. Those two will earn about $12 million combined next season, less than Hayward, and the Hornets may come up empty here anyway. But I’d rather see a rebuilding team go hard at another young pseudo-star — Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Chandler Parsons, Greg Monroe — than tie up cap space on middling veterans.

The Magic have clearly decided to punt restricted free agency for now, concluding correctly that it would result in them paying a “B” player “A” money. And they’re still slated to have about $14 million in cap space to play with after July 10, with plenty of future flexibility. They could have used all of that room to help the Cavs clear LeBron-level cap space, as Boston just did in nabbing two useful assets — a first-round pick and Tyler Zeller — as the price for swallowing Marcus Thornton’s expiring contract.

The Cavs reached out to the Magic and just about every other team with the requisite room, but Boston used its leftover trade exception to pounce first. Wringing Zeller and a protected Cleveland first-rounder is a nice touch; Zeller found his footing last season as a useful bench big, and picks are always handy when you’re trying to get Flip Saunders to answer his damn phone.

Perhaps Orlando didn’t want Thornton’s deal, which would have left it with only about $6 million in cap room going into the season. That would have limited its ability to work as a dumping ground in exchange for assets, but that’s exactly what Boston just did. Maybe the Magic think a better opportunity is coming down the road. Orlando and other teams also had to at least think about the roster consequenses of taking on three players.

Boston also had to act fast, since its trade exception expires next week, and the other teams with room might not have been willing to surrender it in early stages of free agency.

(As for the Cavs and Nets: Cleveland’s motives are transparent, and though giving up Zeller hurts, he’s not a game-changer, and the Cavs have enough power forwards now that Anthony Bennett is in shape and healthy. Tristan Thompson actually looms as a thorny extension case. Sergey Karasev [going to the Nets] is an interesting player whom the Cavs might miss down the road, but they’re all in for LeBron, and they have two wing guys in Dion Waiters and Andrew Wiggins ready to hog minutes.

The Nets want to win now, and they’ll continue to give up any future flexibility in exchange for players who can help them do that. Jarrett Jack is a useful combo guard, and the Nets need a combo guard after the Warriors hit Shaun Livingston with an offer that Brooklyn couldn’t match. The hit here isn’t bad — international prospects and Jack’s contract — but it doesn’t speak well of your $20 million franchise centerpiece point guard that you have to pay $6 million per season for a backup. Nets gonna Net. At least the final year of Jack’s contract is only $500,000 guaranteed, so that it basically expires when Kevin Durant becomes a free agent. Stop laughing.)

Chasing one of those restricted free agents would have tied up Orlando’s cap space as other targets signed, but if your targets are Frye and Gordon, there’s not much damage. You can see what the Magic are doing — Frye and Gordon are shooters, and the Magic need shooting. Frye is a killer pick-and-pop guy with a lightning-fast release. Defenders in the pick-and-roll are scared to help off him, which opens driving lanes for ball handlers. Goran Dragic raved about how clear the floor was when working with Frye, and Orlando’s collection of slashers, starting with Victor Oladipo, will feel that breathing space after working with a bunch of nonthreatening shooters.

Bledsoe would have been an interesting target for them, but he has some skill overlap with Oladipo, and the Magic probably have other point guard targets over the next summer or two. They also have to weigh an extension for Nikola Vucevic, which means playing the same poker game Utah played with Hayward a year ago.

Vucevic is a decent two-way player and a voracious rebounder, and 6-foot-10 guys who fit that description generally get eight figures. But Vucevic was a low enough draft pick that his cap hold would be only $6.75 million next summer if he remains a free agent, meaning the Magic could preserve at least $3 million or $4 million in cap room for July 2015 by declining to offer him an extension now. Is that worth the risk of having to overpay him in restricted free agency, as Utah is going to have to do with Hayward?

Back to Utah: The Jazz should have at least thought about engaging in sign-and-trade talks before Hayward signaled his intent to sign his offer sheet and (probably) erased that possibility. Utah talked with Cleveland about tossing two of its young core guys, plus the no. 5 pick, to the Cavs for the no. 1 pick, and that was a damn progressive internal discussion. It represented the recognition that Utah’s beloved core five (pre–Dante Exum) might not contain a single franchise star, and that flipping two solid young guys for the chance at drafting such a star at no. 1 is worth it. It was a sign that Utah had a realistic understanding of its own players, and a willingness to take a step back in the rebuild — even if the move might displease some fans.

But Hayward doesn’t appear to have been in those talks, and the Jazz like him a lot. They should; he probably has the best long-term potential of all of their young guys, maybe minus Exum. But the Jazz could have pushed to see if Charlotte liked Hayward enough to surrender a bundle of goodies — MKG, Noah Vonleh, and a future pick. It was worth kicking the tires, and Hayward isn’t quite good enough to preempt that discussion.

The Jazz will probably just bite the bullet, and that’s fine. They’ll still have about $11 million in cap room to butt their way into trade talks, and they’ve been aggressive about paying for picks. They took nearly $25 million in dead money last summer in exchange for two Golden State first-rounders (and two second-rounders), and they absorbed the $7 million due Steve Novak for a single second-rounder from the Raptors last week.

And the Jazz are young enough that they could overpay every young guy on the roster and still retain significant cap room every summer going forward.

But that’s dangerous, especially when it comes to Burks and Kanter. It’s unclear if either projects as a long-term NBA starter, and the prognosis is probably negative for now. Overpay too much just for the sake of keeping them as tradable pieces and that cap room shrinks into single digits, below the range at which you can really play ball.

The Jazz still have some work to do, and they know it. The Hornets will, too, once Utah matches, but they’re at least gambling on the kind of young player with upside whom a team in mid-rebuild should want. Good for them.

Filed Under: NBA, Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz, Charlotte hornets, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA